When you’re in a tempest the hardest and most important thing to do is not the most obvious.
When you’re running a business everyone has advice. Some is good, some not so much. But there’s one piece of advice few people will ever get. Yet, far too many entrepreneurs desperately need to hear it. I was one of them.
“Suddenly it felt as though we were navigating blind; straining just to see beyond the bow.”
In my case it came from a chance encounter during one of the toughest moments in my entrepreneurial journey. Our Inc 500 Company was starting to get the attention of potential acquirers. We’d had a few offers to sell but we were having way too much fun. It was Y2K; the eve of a new millennium.
Within eighteen months the party was over. The dotcom crash of 2000 and the attacks of 9/11 tore through the economy and gutted the tech industry. Suddenly it felt as though we were navigating blind; straining just to see beyond the bow.
Like most tech companies at the time, I was trying to hold onto my best people, restructure compensation, keep my board of directors happy, and deal with a client base hit by the dotcom equivalent of the Black Death. Yet, I knew that this was the most important time for us to innovate. Large companies had put the brakes on innovation and when the storm blew over they would need acquire innovators to catch up.
But it’s one thing to innovate when energizing adrenaline is pumping through your veins and another when it’s replaced by stress-induced cortisol. After 10 years of not so much as a sniffle I suddenly found myself coming down with colds and the flu. Sleep became a luxury, my appetite waned, and stress was a constant companion. I was clearly pushing the envelope.
“I think it’s the wrong question. Manage to take care of yourself first.”
During one of the events we produced I found myself in the green room with Peter Drucker. I had great admiration for Peter, he was a mentor and had seen the success we’d achieved, so I shared with him what I was going through, especially the concern I had about my employees’ state of mind. I asked him what I could do to help them. His response cut right through the fog, “Tom,” he said, followed by one of his long signature pauses that made you pay especially close attention, “I think it’s the wrong question. Manage to take care of yourself first.”
Take care of myself, really! What kind of advice was that? As an entrepreneur the very notion of not being brutally tough on myself was completely alien. How could I expect others to give 100% if I wasn’t giving 110%?
But Drucker wasn’t telling me to let up or to take it easy–heck, here he was in his late eighties still doing speaking gigs. Instead he was telling me to do for myself what I was striving to do for everyone else, manage my stress and give myself the space to think clearly. He knew that my doing that would signal to those around me that while the storm raged there was still a destination beyond it.
Seeing Beyond the Storm
It’s not coincidental that the time we need to innovate most is also when it’s hardest; when our minds are cluttered with challenges that suck the oxygen out of every breath we take. If I didn’t take care of myself I didn’t stand a chance of getting those around me to feel that they had a chance to innovate with an uncluttered mind and get through the storm.
So I adjusted my focal length to look beyond the near term. Sought out new advisors who were aligned with my goals, and set long-term objectives for my team that looked out well beyond the current mayhem. Some stuck it out and others didn’t. But those who stayed got the message; whatever was happening in the market at moment, we were going to rebuild and be ready when the market turned. It did. Three years later we made a successful exit and were acquired by a billion dollar IT services player, with which–not coincidentally– I now shared a mutual advisor and mutual friend of Drucker’s.
When you’re in the midst of a tempest your body and mind will react as nature intended them to. Your stress response will take over, obscuring the future. My advice (thank you Peter), manage to take care of yourself first because your role is not to just navigate the storm as much as it is to see through it.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.